In Conversation with Ronan Heenan of People 1st

Against the backdrop of a forecasted rise in the unemployment rates coupled with the importance of access to the right skills and labour for Northern Ireland’s private sector, we took time out to chat to Ronan Heenan of People 1st. Their aim is to help people overcome the challenges in their lives and find a way back into work by offering the right resources to upskill and start a career. Ensuring SMEs in NI, who employ more people than all larger businesses and the entire public sector combined, have the right skills and support to thrive is key to the economy. We discuss the role that technology plays in the education sector and how it has enabled People 1st to help more than 500 people get back into employment in the past year and to achieve platinum status in Deloitte’s Best Managed Companies.

Technology is playing an increasingly important role in every business and employees will be required to interact constantly with it. Have you had to modify the courses you offer to take account of this?

Most definitely. IT has become an essential skill across all sectors, from warehousing and hospitality to retail and child care. This means that we have had to build IT into every single course we deliver. It’s expected in the jobs market now. According to a recent McKinsey study, in something like 60 percent of all occupations an average 30 percent of their work activities are automatable right now. This means that more and more people will be working alongside machines. Just as much as interpersonal, teamwork and communication skills are essential today, having the skills to make the most of what the machines can do for humans will be key. Understanding emerging tools and being comfortable collaborating in new ways is also hugely important in today’s workplace to be able to work effectively with the ever-growing number of disparate teams.

How important is technology to the growth and success of your own organisation at People 1st?

Massively important. We used to be solely based in Northern Ireland but we recently expanded into the Republic, opening three new offices in Donegal. An all-island communications solution was essential to ensure we could communicate and collaborate with our new offices and staff; a scalable solution is critical to facilitate our ongoing growth. Technology and new applications have has also helped us to enhance the courses we offer and improve efficiencies across our back-end processes and systems.

So has technology changed the way in which you deliver your training courses and exams?

Yes it has. We now offer participants e-portfolios where they can log on and track their progress in their own time. We’ve launched Google Classroom, a single hub where teachers and students can assign and view assignments and communicate. And even our in-person classes have become a blended environment that incorporate online learning and use interactive white boards.

What technology would you say has most helped to streamline your own operations in the past 12 months?

We’ve implemented technology successfully across a number of areas, mainly digitising processes and eliminating paper. We’ve dramatically reduced our reliance on physical mail between sites and we’ve rolled out Office 365 and Google Suite for Education, which encourages better collaboration and allows for the introduction of remote working. A good deal of our work is conducted off site, at our clients’ premises. With these tools, we are able to securely connect to our servers when we’re out of the office and access relevant files. We also rely more and more on unified communication tools such as instant messaging (IM), audio and video calls, online meetings, availability (presence) information. This has not only improved collaboration by providing our staff across disperse sites with instant access to one another but it also helping to reduce travel costs for our business.

And is there any one technological advancement that has had a hugely transformative effect on your business in recent years?

I’d have to say the cloud. It has had a dramatic effect on our business – whether it’s through the use of Office 365, Google Suite for Education, Google Classroom or Skype for Business. While it has transformed the way we communicate internally and externally, the way in which we deliver our courses and exams, and even the way we work, we are still just scratching the surface of the cloud.

Do you find it a challenge to keep up with the pace of technological change?

Everything is changing so fast, it is almost impossible to keep up to date. In general we embrace technology and we’re keen to explore how various advancements can positively impact our business, but we do take a cautious approach and don’t just roll out new technology for the sake of it. We look to our trusted technology partners to guide us. They are becoming more and more part of our own business as technology becomes increasingly central to what we do.

What’s been interesting is how new staff at People 1st – the Millennials – have had an effect on our adoption of technology and how it can be used across the business. They always come with new ideas of how to be more productive and how to embrace technology for better ways of working.

What qualities do you look for in a technology partner?

First of all you want a provider who knows and understands your business. No business is the same. there is no one-size fits all. Working with a provider who has researched your business means they are more likely to deliver a solution that meets your unique requirements.

The support that they offer is also vital. Having a single point of contact with your provider means you’re saving considerable time but you’re also able to build up a strong working relationship. When you’re so dependent on your network for example, it’s important that you have a provider that is available when you need them and understands the challenges your particular business is facing.

Due to the key role technology plays in your day-to-day company operations, how do you ensure business continuity and reduce risks of downtime?

It’s true that we are very dependent on technology right now. That’s why our disaster recovery plan is so important. With so many of our critical applications and data in the cloud, it’s vital that we have a network we can rely on. We have also implemented a secure off-site backup, which replaces traditional tape backups and means all data is backed up virtually in real time.

The other important aspect of the network is that its capacity is scalable, which means we have scope for growth. At an essential level, what it’s done is to bring all our sites – 10 in all now – closer together virtually and has allowed us to confidently adopt cloud-based applications such as Google Classroom and the Google Suite for Education.